After an almost inexplicable collapse in the Chase last year, one that was largely due to mechanical failures rather than driver errors, Kyle Busch in 2009 has reverted to being the dominating force he was in 2008. Once again, the driver of the No. 18 car has been making noise that cannot be ignored, scoring more than a quarter of the top series’ wins thus far and telling reporters he may challenge the King someday in total wins with his victories in the other two series. And along with his racing success comes his cocky, unrepentant, and daring attitude. Kyle is refreshing or offensive, but he’s never boring.
Meanwhile, his older brother, who once had a reputation of his own for brashness mixed with undeniable skill behind the wheel before Kyle came along, sits third in the standings, four positions ahead of his enigmatic brother.
It’s easy to watch Kyle Busch race and conclude that there aren’t many that can keep up with him when his car is right. It’s easy to see him win race after race and think him destined for all-time greatness in this sport. It’s even easy to watch Kyle Busch and ask, who can beat this kid?
But Kurt’s still the Busch with the Cup on his shelf.
Granted, Kurt was helped by a then-new Chase system that enabled him to finish first rather than fourth with his point total, but Kurt also didn’t have the advantage of bonus points for race wins that Kyle’s bad luck squandered in the first Chase event of 2008.
It’s interesting to look at the similarities and contrasts of the two brothers today. One could hardly have imagined in 2004 that one day Kurt Busch would seem relatively reserved, calm and uncontroversial. It may just be because he wasn’t winning for Roger Penske like he had been for Jack Roush. But there was once a time when Kurt was the top NASCAR villain… and while he probably didn’t inspire the vitriol that Kyle does, he certainly wasn’t loved, especially after his spat with Jimmy Spencer. Remember Geoff Smith’s words at Kurt’s departure from Roush? “We’re officially retiring as Kurt Busch apologists.” And that was the director of a team he had won a title for just a year before.
Kurt Busch often outperformed his Roush teammates, with the possible exception of Matt Kenseth. From 2002-2005 he scored 14 wins and 40 top fives. Kenseth had nine wins and 42 top fives. Mark Martin, Roush’s golden boy, scored just three wins and 39 top fives. Jeff Burton scored just 13 top fives and did not dent victory lane once in that period. Greg Biffle scored nine wins and 22 top fives in his three years—but most of that was in 2005.
One would think Kurt must have been pretty difficult to work with for Roush to let numbers like that go, but so far I haven’t heard Penske complaining too much, at least not beyond the quit-yer-bellyaching-and-drive-yer-car that many drivers have heard from their owners at least once in their career. At the very least, Kurt was a good enough team player to give Penske a Daytona 500 win.
The senior Busch benefited from driving for one of the top organizations in the sport, as Kyle does today. Whatever abilities either of them possesses behind the wheel, racing is still a team sport and success depends on much more than just the driver. There aren’t many drivers that have done well with weak organizations. But Penske Racing, after some years of struggling, seems back on it again… and if they can keep their balance, Kurt has an undeniable shot at notching up championship number two before his hotshot brother nails down number one.
This would be a considerable surprise in light of all the ink (or maybe disk space these days) devoted to Kyle’s wins at Las Vegas, Bristol, and Richmond, the attention given to his comments about someday topping Richard Petty’s NASCAR win total, and the rabid raving from Darrell Waltrip about his ability. I’m sure I’m not the first, but not too many people have mentioned that his brother is ahead of him in the standings right now. And for the most part, that hasn’t been luck.
Kurt Busch’s win this year came at Atlanta. At Texas he finished eighth, and at Fontana he finished fifth. That sounds to me like Penske has found whatever it was they were missing at the intermediate tracks which make up the bulk of the schedule. Penske has usually been strong at the plate tracks, and Kurt finished 10th at Daytona and sixth at Talladega. He came home third at Phoenix. No one doubts he can get it done at Bristol. Thus far into the season, if any track on the circuit is Kurt’s Achilles heel, we haven’t seen it. Only in Vegas has Kurt finished outside of the top 20 in 2009.
When you look at Kyle’s results for the season, on the other hand, it’s a violently erratic waveform. Would you believe that Kyle’s three wins are three of only four times this year that he’s finished in the top 15? Kyle has been all over the map in the first 11, with a 41st at Daytona (which, granted, wasn’t his fault), 24th at Martinsville, a 34th at Darlington, and 18th place finishes at Atlanta and Texas.
When one looks at both drivers’ performance this year, it creates an impression that Kurt, with more experience, might actually be the smarter and more focused driver of the two. Kyle has made some costly mistakes that have caused him tire trouble or put him laps down… and come Chase time, this could devastate him just as badly as the faulty parts did in 2008. Kurt seems to have learned consistency in little things like entering and exiting the pits, staying cool and not cutting a tire by getting angry with another driver, and to get the best finish his car will allow every week. In the points racing era greatly enhanced by the Chase, consistency wins. One loss of cool or focus, however justified, can do in a potential champion.
Just because that younger one has that fiery determination to beat his older brother on the track, don’t believe that it’s not a two-way street. The youth may have a lot of flash, but in the standings, experience is winning.
- Remember Casey Mears’s surprise Coca-Cola 600 win in ’07? It took a fuel mileage gamble for Casey to be the only winner of the last six Coke 600s not named Kasey Kahne or Jimmie Johnson. I know, it surprised me too when I looked it up. Something about Coke motivates those two.
- I can’t imagine I would have thought this when I was a kid pulling for A.J. Foyt, but the Indianapolis 500 just doesn’t interest me as much as it used to. Maybe it’s because the only driver who I’m really familiar with is more famous for showing off her considerably attractive body than for winning races. She may look great, but she doesn’t wear a swimsuit in the racecar. I’d tune in for that.
- Jeff Gordon received an injection for back pain shortly after Jeremy Mayfield’s misadventure. I can only imagine that he has almost certainly cleared that with NASCAR, but the injection supposedly contains a corticosteroid. I guess that’s not on the forbidden list?
- I missed the All-Star Race for a day of paintball as part of a bachelor party. Presumably Tony’s win was a better feel-good story than the welts on my limbs and head felt. By most accounts I’ve read it wasn’t a classic, but it was nice to see Gene Haas make a few bucks after paying his debt to society.